Embrace Women’s Day to empower women
March 8 is International Women’s Day. This day is to remind us about the plight of women across the world. It is a day for all of us to reaffirm our commitments to see women in the same light as men. It is a day to continue our efforts to uplift the poor, and the vulnerable young girls and women to have a safe, secure, and a decent livelihood in a just society.
To mark the International Women's Day, UN Women (www.unwomen), a United Nations unit, is asking all of us to embrace the Women’s Day to support and empower women everywhere. UN Women wants us to "challenge gender norms, empower each other, celebrate diversity, break stereotypes, reject the binary, mobilize, and take action".
Despite many gains in the field of inclusion, diversity, and eliminating gender biases, there is still much more to accomplish for women globally. Women are prime ministers, prominent physicians, and researchers, politicians, CEOs of major international conglomerates, and occupy role-model positions in every walk of life, yet men see them as second-class citizens in many countries. The proverbial ‘glass ceiling’ is still very much strong but with a few cracks here and there.
While conferring the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman for their work in advancing women's rights and women's role in peacebuilding work, the Norwegian Nobel Committee acknowledged, "unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society there would not be democracy or lasting peace in this world.”
Much waters have flown under the bridge since then. Thus, is it safe to assume that women are at par with men in every aspect of life? Do women enjoy the same freedoms, rights, and privileges as men across the world? No, we are not there yet. Well, there is still more to be realized.
The issues facing women around the world are innumerable: from oppression, poverty, and violence, to femicide. According to the United Nations, femicide is the most extreme form of violence and discrimination against women and girls. In the hands of men, women suffer unimaginable cruelty in the form of sex trafficking, sexual exploitation, workplace and domestic harassment, forced labor, marital rape, and killings.
As I read a brief article by Tamara Qiblawi on CNN about the plight of Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon, one sentence stood out in my mind. It still troubles me much as I read it, “Wendy’s boss glared at her as she chopped coriander…moments later, the Kenyan domestic worker was told to never touch food with her bare, black hands again.” This is one of the realities women face in many developing countries where women are discriminated based on gender, color, caste, creed, and perhaps for lots of other reasons. Such abhorrent behavior shows that racism is still alive and well and a fact of life in certain cultures.
According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), gender inequalities in marriage and family are still happening due to weak laws or lack of enforcement. Despite notable laws, violence against women and girls persists at astonishingly high levels with one in three women and girls experiencing physical, sexual, and emotional trauma in their lifetimes. In many cultures they are mere sex objects: deprived of education, denied a decent living, and forced to confinement. Young girls in many communities in Africa, Southeast Asia, Middle East are forced to undergo unnecessary and risky FGM (female genital mutilation for a non-medical reason) practice. The practice has roots in all the wrong places and reasons such as sexuality, control, honor, ideas of purity, and beauty to justify.
UN Women finds that despite laws, young girls below 18 are forced to marry in many countries. Every year, 12 million girls marry before the age of 18. There are a few countries that have laws that explicitly require women to obey their husbands. Then there are countries that prohibit married women to travel or apply for passports. There is a great disparity in education enrollment of school-age children globally. About 15 million girls of primary-school-age are not getting the chance to educate compared to about 10 million boys.
Care.com (CARE is an international humanitarian agency) statistics show people living in extreme poverty are mainly women and girls. Their earning power is disproportionately lower compared to men's exposing substantial income inequality between the two genders.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly states, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights…" It recognizes the rights of all members of the human family that are entitled to enjoy the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace. All UN member states are committed to promoting "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion"
However, in many countries, women's equality is still a pipe dream. Likewise, in many cultures, violence against women is very prevalent. The gender gap between men and women is a gaping hole, and women are falling through the crack at an alarming rate.
Empowering women to change their status is possible only through education, arming them with appropriate knowledge and skillsets, bringing forth appropriate laws and enforcing them, and by altering men’s perceptions about women via awareness building.
Many religions and cultures accord women the ultimate respect, but it is taking a long time to get their freedoms and rights established in our current societies. Yet again, in many countries, their plight is still pathetic due to poverty, physical, mental, and sexual abuse, and lack of freedoms.
Women power from a historical perspective
We can find examples of women role models in the current context as well as from historical and mythological perspectives. There are great examples in the Hindu scriptures; one such is Shakthi, the embodiment of female persona who was the power of Lord Shiva. Then, the matrilineal society that prevailed in India regarded mom, amma, or ma as the embodiment of compassion, care, empathy, and nurture. Suffice to say that the mother is the source from which everyone derives power.
Whatever happened to the above mindset? In many places their rights and freedoms are trampled with, subverted, and they are coerced by men and cultural and religious edicts. Thus, equity and justice for women are slow to act and reach parity with men. Hopefully, women’s movements like #MeToo, TimesUp, Ni una menos, and #TotalShutdown, etc. will empower women to bring about positive changes in societal attitudes, build awareness on women’s issues, and bring them to the forefront.
UN Women along with many other NGOs, global corporations, and various governments are trying to uplift and empower women with the assistance of laws and regulations, and via education, training, and awareness-building. Laws are required to prevent violence against women, end discrimination, and provide an equal footing, and a level playing field for women. Thus far, the progress is limited, and the long road ahead is paved with many haphazard. But we must collectively try harder to uplift the poor and the vulnerable out of poverty, educate them, provide training and useful skillsets so that they can earn a meaningful living. We all can lend a hand to elevate them thus making the world more equitable for all.
I believe, for every self-absorbed and egotistical man, there is a Shakti, an empowered mother, or an unrivalled wife, a clever sister or a smart daughter to make him a bit tame and humane. However, so far society sees women differently. Men malign women’s rights and freedoms. It is high time to change that attitude and treat women with dignity, respect, and equity.